Plenty of you kids out there only have memories of Mike Mussina as a Yankee and only sort of know that he was originally with Baltimore. But he was, and he was great there and I hated him. Not quite as much as I hated Roger Clemens, of course, but players as great as the Rocket get a special kind of hatred (especially when you are under the age of 10 when said player is destroying Major League Baseball and your favorite team is mired in mediocrity).
My hatred for Mike Mussina wasn’t cemented in anything resembling logic (other than him being really good, of course) but rather a Sports Illustrated cover story about him and Ben McDonald. I am pretty sure I just really hated his face because I’ve gone back and read the article and there’s nothing hatable in there. Hey, I was 13 which is not exactly when you expect people to be making rational decisions.
When the Yankees signed Mike Mussina after the 2000 season I accepted it pretty much the same way as I did with the Clemens acquisition: Grudgingly. He made the pitching staff better, there was no argument about that and so I was glad to have him on the team. But in the back of my mind he was still Mike Mussina: Guy I Hate.
A lot of people have a hard time accepting players on their team who they don’t like for whatever reason, and that’s why you get non-sarcastic crying about True Yankees versus people who aren’t and WFAN callers who will never give Alex Rodriguez any credit for being one of the best baseball players of all time. I try to take a big picture view: Just because I don’t want to be someone’s friend doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate their skill. Does anyone in the entire world like Gary Sheffield? Probably not, but if you wouldn’t take Classic Sheff on your team to hit baseballs you are shortsighted and probably crazy.
And so, I accepted Mussina with open arms to the team. But I never expected to actually warm up to him beyond that.
The 2001 campaign that Mike Mussina put together was quite spectacular. If you aren’t a person who just looks at wins and losses and makes their decisions, it’s pretty easy to spot that he was much better than the guy who won the Cy Young (Roger Clemens). Here’s a high level comparison of the two:
As you can see the difference was, as I mentioned, their records. Mussina was 17-11 while Clemens was X-X and he actually finished fifth behind a bunch of guys with .700 win percentages. A common story in baseball history, but always a bummer.
At this point, I had firmly moved from “appreciate” to “like”. I’m pretty easy to win over. His crankiness became endearing and his quotes to the media amusing.
The most memorable game Mike Mussina pitched in pinstripes was, easily, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Roger Clemens had done a grand job pitching badly, and after the third inning the Yankees were losing 3-0. It was 4-0 shortly after the 4th started as Clemens gave up a solo-homerun followed by a walk and a single. It seemed like it would be impossible for the Yankees to keep the game close.
With runners on first and third and no outs, Mussina stepped onto the mound to take over. He struck out Jason Varitek and got some guy named Johnny Damon to ground into a double play. No runs scored. The game didn’t get out of hand. The Yankees had a chance. Mussina gave them two more scoreless innings and received an insane ovation from the crowd (for good reason).
But no, I didn’t quite love him after this. I was extremely grateful to have a pitcher on the Yankees who could step in and do that but performances like that don’t necessarily push you over that edge and form a personal (totally one-sided) connection for a player. I would expect that if my most beloved Andy Pettitte were called on in that situation it would have ended differently, for example. Love is very rarely rational.
The moment in time I crossed over that line with Mussina was May 31st, 2006. Mussina was trying to finish up a complete game against the Detroit Tigers in the 9th inning and was having some trouble. Not entirely caused by himself (a throwing error behind him extended the game), but it was there.
With the score 5-1, 2 outs and a runner on base Joe Torre decided that his pitcher had run out of juice. He began to get ready to head to the mound for a visit-and-lift when Mussina looked in the dugout and saw him and screamed ”YOU STAY THERE!”.
That was it, I was in love. Right then, forever.
Yes, it came late in his Yankees career and 2007 was often extremely painful to watch (especially when I was in attendance for some of the absolute horror-shows) but it was there. I finally gave in and learned to love the Moose. All hail the cranky old man on the mound. I miss his postgame (and pregame and between game) quotes from reporters.